If you ask the internet for general life advice, it might tell you to "live authentically." This mission has become a way to brand our lifestyles, a hashtag-worthy catchphrase like "You do you," "Keep it real," and "I woke up like this." Perhaps it's no coincidence that as we create virtual identities, we insist upon our authenticity. But what does it really mean to live authentically?
In the field of psychology, authenticity means living in accordance with one's values, beliefs, desires and needs. The opposite - being inauthentic - means self-alienation, being out of touch with oneself or submitting to external pressures. Research suggests that feeling authentic is key to our wellbeing, career success, interpersonal relationships and self-esteem. Brené Brown defines authenticity as living without pretences:
"Authenticity is a collection of choices we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen."
Be true to yourself. It seems simple enough, until we ask ourselves the age-old philosophical question, what is my true self? Rousseau believed that we achieve authenticity by following an inner source, a true self that functions as a predetermined and fixed touchstone. To an extent, the idea that our innate personalities should guide our paths in life resonates with Rousseau's idea of authenticity. According to Heidegger, authenticity is literally "being one's own" or "being one's self," a state we achieve by having a larger conception of our purpose or life-project. Rejecting the idea of a pregiven true self, Heidegger believed that our true self is a work in progress, unfolding in time as we project various possible choices into the future. Authenticity entails accountability: to live authentically, we must own and own up to our choices and actions. Sartre linked our authenticity to our ability to choose freely; "bad faith" means thinking that our identity is unchangeable. Foucault also dismissed the goal of uncovering one authentic "true self." Drawing upon askesis, an ancient Greek model of knowing and caring for the self, he insisted that we must create ourselves as works of art.
In short, you do you. This can be empowering advice, a call to free ourselves from social norms and external pressures. But this way of envisioning authenticity also seems self-indulgent. If I do me and you do you, and we focus our energy on self-fashioning, how much will we be invested in matters beyond ourselves? Is authenticity a selfish concept? Contemporary thinkers have tried to explain how the pursuit of authenticity may benefit society as a whole, and how our commitments may uphold a larger structure of values or morals. For instance, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that our identity and authenticity depend on our relationships to others and the world around us:
"I can define my identity only against a background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in the world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands."
According to Taylor, if being authentic means doing "what matters," authenticity requires us to understand our roles, responsibilities and values within an overarching social and environmental order. Our authenticity hinges upon how we exist as participants in the world - how our choices affect ourselves and, dialogically, others.
Is authenticity a useful goal? It is fair to deem one lifestyle more authentic than another? I can't say that living authentically has ever been an explicit aspiration of mine. At the same time, living inauthentically sounds like a betrayal of something important, so maybe these questions are worth asking.
PS: Photo via Unsplash, because I need to take more photos.